A New and Legitimate Way? David Moffitt’s Reading of Hebrews

Earlier this summer I had a chance to read and review a new and increasingly-influential book on Hebrews by David Moffitt, assistant professor of NT at Campbell University Divinity School. The review’s slotted to be published in the Fall edition of Trinity Journal. Here, however, I wanted to post a lightly revised, pre-publication version, principally because I think the book’s fundamental thesis is just plain wrong. I’ll explain why. But, first, a summary.

Summary. Moffitt tries to overturn two common assumptions in Hebrews’ scholarship. Against those who argue that (1) Jesus’ resurrection is unimportant for Hebrews and (2) Jesus’ resurrection has been conflated with his exaltation, he insists that Jesus’ resurrection should be distinguished from his exaltation and that Jesus’ resurrection stands at the center of Hebrews’ theology. He supports this intriguing thesis with three arguments.

First, he argues that Jesus’ human presence in heaven is what makes him greater than angels, which, therefore, presumes his bodilyresurrection (and ascension). The argument of Heb 1 turns, in other words, on ontology: the son, as an exalted human, is greater than angelic spirits. The focus on Jesus’ humanity in Heb 2, then, is less on humiliation than it is on eligibility and eschatology. The son became “like his peers” and, thus, eligible for the sort of eschatological exaltation described in Heb 1 and anticipated, according to Heb 2, in Ps 8. Second, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ qualification for priesthood—his perfection—required his resurrection. After all, Jesus’ appointment as heavenly (Melchizedekian) priest (Heb 8:1–2, 4) required death (Heb 2:9–11; 5:8–10) and an “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Jesus perfection, therefore, “st[ood] between [his] death and elevation to the heavenly priesthood” (p. 199). Third, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his death, is at the center of Hebrews’ atonement theology. Hebrews, he insists, consistently presents Jesus’ offering as taking place inheaven, not on earth (e.g., Heb 9:11–12, 23–25), and Jesus’ offering as his offering of his resurrected, not bloody body (e.g., Heb 10:5–10; 13:12). Were it otherwise, the author’s Day-of-Atonement typology would be undone. Hebrews would bring to the center—sacrificial slaughter—what Leviticus leaves on the periphery. Jesus’ death, instead, serves as a model of exemplary suffering and, moreover, as a necessary, if still preparatory step for his (heavenly) atoning work (p. 294).

Critique. Moffitt’s thesis, while nicely argued, is nevertheless untenable, primarily for two reasons. First, Moffitt’s understanding of Jesus’ priesthood is reductionistic. Moffitt forces precision where Hebrews simply will not allow it. Hebrews—however frustratingly—never gives us a clear idea when Jesus became a high priest. While it could suggest that Jesus’ priesthood began only after his resurrection (Heb 7:16) or only once Jesus entered heaven (Heb 8:4), it could also suggest that Jesus’ crucifixion—his voluntary death—was itself a priestly act. After all, while one might, with Moffitt, separate sacrificial slaughter from atonement, no one—especially anyone familiar with the Day-of-Atonement ritual—would suggest only the latter was a priestly activity (see, e.g., Lev 16:11, 15). Second, Moffitt’s understanding of atonement is reductionistic. Whether or not sacrificial slaughter—death—is less central to atonement than the presentation of blood/life can presently remain an open question. Neither Hebrews nor the OT, however, will allow death to function simply as the preparation for atonement, which is to say, as simply the preparation for the atoning manipulation of blood in God’s presence. This sort of conclusion would make nonsense of those instances in the OT where atonement is secured by death alone, without any reference to the Levitical cult, much less to the ritual manipulation of blood (see, e.g., Exod 32:30–32; Num 25:13; 35:33; Deut 21:1–9; 2 Sam 21:3ff. et al.) or, related, to those cultic contexts which accent the atoning value of some ritual element other than manipulation (see, e.g., Lev 1:4; 4:26). Moffitt’s reading, moreover, is also out of step with a more traditional and, arguably, convincing reading of Lev 17:11, which emphasizes death—life given in the place of another’s life—rather than life released and, therefore, available for atoning purgation. Much the same, in fact, could be said for Hebrews, which stubbornly refuses to view Jesus’ death as simply preparatory for and, thus, “peripheral” to atonement (cf. p. 276). Rather, it is Jesus’ death itself that restores humanity’s lost glory (“because he suffered death,” Heb 2:9), frees humans from the devil’s grip (“by his death,” Heb 2:14), and provides the forgiveness necessary for the inauguration/mediation of the new covenant (“now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from…sins,” Heb 9:15; et al.). None of this, of course, requires a metaphorical reading of Jesus’ archetypical blood ritual, which is to say, none of this undercuts Moffitt’s more fundamental point about the literal nature of the Day-of-Atonement antitype. What does, however, is Hebrews’ one explicit reference to Jesus’ resurrection in 13:20. There the author says that Jesus was raised because of the efficacy of his covenant-inaugurating—and, thus, atonement-securing—death (“through the blood of the eternal covenant”). In other words, Jesus’ death—his blood—had atoning virtue prior to his resurrection and, thus, prior to the moment at the center of Moffitt’s thesis.

In sum, in an attempt to interpret Jesus’ priesthood consistently and his atoning presentation non-metaphorically, Moffitt has overcooked his evidence and, thus, misread Hebrews. Hebrews simply will not allow Jesus’ sacrifice to be separated from his priestly, atoning work.

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10 thoughts on “A New and Legitimate Way? David Moffitt’s Reading of Hebrews

  1. John T. Jeffery says:

    FYI: Dr. Moffitt is no longer on the faculty at Campbell University Divinity School. In 2013 he assumed the position of Senior Lecturer in the School of Divinity, St Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews (U.K.). See hsi personal homepage on the School of Divinity at https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/rt/staff/dm206/ [accessed 30 JUL 2014]. See his faculty page on University of St Andrews at https://risweb.st-andrews.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/david-moffitt(c3e0c164-cecc-4b57-828d-5ac43a3e87bd).html [accessed 30 JUL 2014].

  2. John T. Jeffery says:

    Another thoughtful review of Moffitt’s dissertation was done earlier this year by Aubrey Sequeira, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. This was posted to Credo 16 JAN 2014 at http://www.credomag.com/2014/01/16/atonement-and-the-logic-of-resurrection-in-the-epistle-to-the-hebrews-review/ [accessed 30 JUL 2014].

  3. David M. Moffitt says:

    Jared,

    Thanks for taking the time to engage with my work. It’s always humbling to know that people are actually reading one’s efforts and are willing to consider and critique them.

    If I may, I have a few objections to your review. Since I give my arguments against most of the points you raise in the book itself, I’ll mention just one here. You accuse me throughout of being reductionistic. Yet you write, “Neither Hebrews nor the OT … will allow death to function simply as the preparation for atonement, which is to say, as simply the preparation for the atoning manipulation of blood in God’s presence.” The fact is, I don’t allow for or say this either. Here’s just one quote from my book where I state my view on the issue you’re critiquing, “Jesus’ death stands as the event sine qua non for initiating the new covenant and in Jesus’ preparation for his high-priestly ministry and atoning offering. The latter point clarifies how Jesus’ death can also be seen to be the first element in the larger process of blood sacrifice, without being conflated or collapsed by the author into the central act of offering that effects atonement. In the author’s schema, Jesus’ death is therefore necessary, though not by itself sufficient, for the atonement he procured” (p. 285).

    I don’t see how what I’ve actually said in the book about Jesus’ death can fairly be reduced (overcooked?) to my saying that Jesus’ death is “simply preparation for atonement.” Where does this “simply” come from? You might take a look at my essay in The Day of Atonement volume edited by Thomas Hieke and Tobias Nicklas. While I say in the book (I think clearly) that blood sacrifice is a process which includes, but is not reducible to, the slaughter of the victim (and the same can be said for the act of presentation), I try to make this point more succinctly in that essay.

    Grace and peace,
    David

  4. Jared Compton says:

    David, thanks for the reply. What I meant is this: You don’t give Jesus’ death any other atoning significance beyond being a “preparation for his atoning offering” (your header, p. 285). That’s where my “simply” comes from. If you did, then I’d happily remove it and feel a whole lot more comfortable recommending your book. But, as it stands, I think you give a reduced–and, thus, incorrect–view of the place of death in securing atonement.

  5. John T. Jeffery says:

    David M. Moffitt: Did you respond to Aubrey Sequeira,”Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Review)” (16 JAN 2014), on Credo at http://www.credomag.com/2014/01/16/atonement-and-the-logic-of-resurrection-in-the-epistle-to-the-hebrews-review/ [accessed 31 JUL 2014]? I do not notice any comments there.

  6. David M. Moffitt says:

    Jared,

    I think the “simply” remains unfair and reductive. When I say that Jesus’ death is part of a sacrifice that effects atonement, I’m saying that Jesus’ death is necessary for atonement – no death, no atonement, no “simply” about it.

    You’re right, though, about the matter of emphasis (though emphasis is not the same as reduction). I’ve come to think that Hebrews does not load the emphasis for the atoning benefits Jesus procured on his death, the way Paul, for example, often does. There’s way too much to be said here than can be said fairly and carefully in a brief response to a blog post. I’ve tried to say some of it, probably not as well as it could have been said, in the book. I add here only a few questions/reflections concerning a larger theology of atonement (something the book does not attempt to do and should not be read as attempting to do).

    If Hebrews puts emphasis in a place that is different from Paul, as I argue the author does, why would that be a problem? My interpretation might be wrong, but I fail to see how, from a canonical and theological perspective, the account for which I’ve argued in Hebrews in any way detracts from the importance of Jesus’ death as sacrificial and atoning, as you say my view does. Hebrews is neither the only voice in the canon, nor the only text that reflects on atonement. It seems to me that Hebrews enlarges, not detracts from, our synthetic/systematic accounts of the atonement. Hebrews pushes us to look at the full sweep of the incarnation, and especially Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, in a light that Paul does not. But is this surprising given that Paul (or any other NT text for that matter) never speaks explicitly of Jesus as a high priest, or works consistently with the Yom Kippur sacrifice — which does actually highlight taking blood into God’s presence in the holy of holies as a key act that makes atonement (Lev 16:16-17) — to explain atonement? Why must a different perspective on atonement be viewed as a problem?

    Grace and peace,
    David

  7. Jared Compton says:

    David: It seems to me that since so much of your book argues against a traditional and, arguably, Pauline understanding of the place of death in atonement (here I’m thinking esp. of 256–78), you’ve not left any room for the sort of both/and approach you mention in your comment. I just don’t think Paul can square with statements like “the slaughter of the animal” was “a peripheral element of blood sacrifices” (276). In other words, your reading of Hebrews “enlarges . . . our synthetic/systematic accounts of the atonement” only if we revise our reading of Paul to accommodate your reading of the OT sacrifices. And I’m not sure that’s possible.

  8. David M. Moffitt says:

    Jared,

    Thanks for this helpful response. I think what you’ve said clarifies the real issue in play. A certain reading of Paul and a “traditional” theory of atonement make it, a priori, impossible for my exegesis to be correct. The debate, it appears, is not really about my arguments, but about my conclusions. That’s certainly “Theologically Driven”(if you’ll forgive the pun :).

    In all seriousness, though, my own view is that canon is already a theological commitment large enough to allow that the perspectives of Paul and Hebrews (and Leviticus, etc.) sit together, whether I’m able to see exactly how that can be worked out systematically/synthetically or not. I don’t, therefore, feel compelled, as you apparently do, to conclude that what Paul says about atonement must be determinative for Hebrews (and perhaps for every other canonical text?). Hebrews and Paul together enlarge the view of either one alone.

    As for whether or not what I’ve argued stands against a “traditional” understanding of the place of Jesus’ death for atonement, I suppose it depends on what exactly you mean by “traditional.” I’ve recently written entries on “Atonement” and “Day of Atonement” that are slated to appear in the Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (assuming the editors ultimately accept them). Figures such as Hippolytus and Origen, to name only two, argue for the sacrificial significance of both the cross and the post-resurrection ascension. Reflecting on Lev 16, Origen, for example, goes to Paul to argue that the cross is the sacrifice that defeats the powers of sin and death. He then goes to Hebrews to argue that, after his resurrection, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven and there presented himself (including his blood) as a sacrifice to God at the heavenly altar. He calls this latter event the “true Day of Atonement” that “propitiates” God (see esp. his Homilies on Leviticus 9, though these ideas run right through his Homilies on Leviticus). I detail other examples and interpretive approaches in the articles. Apparently, though, there are models in the “tradition” for interpreting both the cross and the ascension in terms of sacrifice, without requiring the reduction of Hebrews to Paul, or Paul to Hebrews.

    Anyway, thanks for reading the book and posting on it. Thanks, too, for graciously hosting this dialogue. I’ve enjoyed it!

    Grace and peace,
    David

  9. John T. Jeffery says:

    David: Others have enjoyed it as well!

  10. Jared Compton says:

    David, appreciate the reply. Here I’ll just add three notes. First, that’s not exactly what I was saying. I wasn’t saying that “a certain reading of Paul . . . make[s] it, a priori, impossible for [your] exegesis to be correct.” Rather, in that last comment I was simply making the point that your exegesis—esp. of Lev. (256–78)—won’t allow for the sort of both/and approach you had mentioned. To put it another way, I wasn’t saying your reading of Hebrews is wrong because it doesn’t cohere with Paul; rather, I was saying that your reading of Hebrews—and of Lev.—doesn’t allow room for Paul and, therefore, can’t be sold simply as an “enlarge[ment] . . . of our synthetic/systematic accounts of the atonement”—at least if “enlarge” and “synthetic/systematic” imply non-antithetical.

    Second and related, I’ll just say again what I tried to say in the review. I think your proposal misreads Hebrews itself (e.g., 2.9, 14; 9:15). It’s not wrong simply because it doesn’t cohere with Paul or with a traditional understanding of Lev., which is to say, I’m taking exegetical, not simply theological issue with your proposal. So, it really isn’t fair to characterize the debate as “not really about [your] arguments, but about [your] conclusions.” Framing it that way isn’t helpful (except for a nice pun;) and, moreover, it lets your exegesis off the hook prematurely.

    Third, “tradition.” I don’t doubt that others have tried to integrate Hebrews’ Yom-Kippur typology into full-orbed accounts of Jesus’ atonement. What I do doubt, however, is that you’ll find any who couple this with the sort of “death-as-life-released” atonement theology you find in Lev. (Again, I’m thinking of pp. 256–78.) That isn’t the traditional understanding of sacrifice, as you, of course, realize (see, e.g., your note to this effect on 256n74).